The woodworker’s Xmas list that dreams are made of.
In my earlier post, I put together a list of things under $50 that would put a smile on the face of any woodworker on Xmas morning. A gift worth sharing with Santa. Some are of the stocking stuffer variety, like great pencils and accurate rulers. Others are chosen to help improve the woodworking experience, like a set of my favorite headphones. And some are meant to be used daily and cherished over the years, such as a Starrett Adjustable Square.
Now it’s time to turn the Xmas list thing all the way up to 11. These are tools that can make a big difference in the creative and woodworking experiences. Perhaps there’s a gift on the list you hope Santa will bring. Or, maybe you’ll find something for yourself. So, here’s my list of items over $50 worth dreaming about.
One Great Tool
Woodworkers like great tools. Even if you’re on a tight budget, adding one great tool each year can make a quite a difference in your woodworking capabilities. It’s not so much about price as what the right tool can do to make your woodworking better. Picking out a tool that makes a difference, that’s what’s important.
After being at this for a while, I could make up a long list of tools that made a difference in my work, but with Xmas coming soon I’ll keep it to a few suggestions of tools that I treasure and recommend.
The first great hand tool in my shop arrived as a treasured Xmas gift from my wife. A Lie-Nielsen Low Angle Block Plane Beautiful to look at in brass and wonderful to hold and use. And, it’s always in use. Can’t recommend it enough.
Lie Nielsen No. 102 Low Angle Block Plane
A Fine Quality Paring Chisel
Most woodworkers have a set of chisels. Some basic but useful. Some even nicer. But, it’s the sharp, 1/2” wide long-handled pairing chisel I reach for to fine tune joinery or clean up a detail. The long handle just gives you that much more aim and control in situations that demand precision. You don’t need a set. One or maybe two pairing chisels will do. Pick a size that suits you, keep it sharp and keep it handy. I have Lie-Nielsen and Japanese pairing chisels and love them both.
Matsamura Paring Chisel
A Sharpening System
There are dozens of methods to sharpen planes and chisels and other cutting tools. Whether you’re into the Scary Sharp sandpaper/plate glass method, or a great set of Water Stones, or use handy sharpening jigs like the Veritas Honing Guides and Sharpening System, you need a way to sharpen your tools. Sharp tools make a huge difference in the hand tool woodworking experience. Whatever method you choose, put what you need on your Xmas list that will help you make sharpening easier, faster and more frequent.
I love the process and experience of sharpening tools with water stones but, like the tale about the woodsman’s dull axe, when I’m in serious furniture production mode, it’s hard to find the time to keep tools razor sharp. So, years ago I changed over to the Veritas II Power Sharpening System. It’s fast. Now, cutting tools can be touched up in a few seconds. Granted, at the price it’s not a solution for everyone and there are other excellent power sharpeners out there, but for me, it’s made a big difference.
Vertitas Sharpening System
$49 – $69
Veritas Mark II Power Sharpening System
Psst. I’ve got a secret. CAD software helps your woodworking accuracy and using it will improve your designs. A sketchbook is the place to think about and store ideas, but great CAD software is where to go to work out the details and create variations. And, it’s that iterative process of trying out designs and refining them that makes you a better designer.
There are “free” cloud-based CAD software like AutoDesk’s Fusion360 which works for many, but I prefer a different kind of CAD software that’s easier to improvise in than highly structured, parametric-based software. My focus in CAD is on creating designs and refining surfaces and shapes. I use and recommend Rhino3D.
Whatever choice you make in CAD software, commit yourself to learning a little bit each month. It’s one of the best long term investments you can make in woodworking — particularly digital woodworking. It’s done more to improve my work than any other tool. And, remember: you can’t use a CNC without first creating CAD drawings. And, even if you’re focused on hand tools, good design and good drawings will make your woodworking projects better.
A lot of woodworkers seem to think of software as an afterthought and because it’s a tool you can’t touch like a quality hand tool that software should have little or no cost. They couldn’t be any more wrong. Great software is easier to learn, delivers a better design experience and is worth every penny of its cost. Highly recommended.
Free for some users
A Joinery System
There are dozens of methods for making mortise and tenon joints. Every woodworker should learn at least a few because they’re essential for most furniture projects. But, when you have a number of joints to make — say for a run of those dining chairs you always wanted to make or for a big project, like a tall cabinet, you’re going to face the challenges of accuracy and repeatability.
It’s one thing to make a few mortise and tenon joints by hand or with table saw tenoning jig setup, but it’s quite another to make a dozen or more perfect fitting joints, quickly. Faced with that situation in the woodworking craft, you’ve reached a decision point. It’s time to choose and adopt a mortise and tenon joint system to stick with for the long run.
I know a number of woodworkers who combine hollow chisel mortisers or horizontal mortisers with a shaper or table saw setup for making tenons. But you’re left with the challenge of trimming perfect shoulders.
There are a number of other methods that involves templates and various jigs, but it may be time to consider is to invest in a tool dedicated to joint making. I have two recommendations. I like both of them for different reasons.
For a fixed mortise and tenon making setup, consider the Leigh FMT system. Over the years, I’ve made several thousand mortise and tenon joints on my FMT and love it. It’s quickly set it up and can be tuned by .001” increments. And, it’s exceptionally repeatable. Lock in blank stock with the quick clamps and a mortise or tenon joint can be made quickly again and again.
The Domino DF500 or DF700 are Festool’s joint making solutions. These handy tools are simple to operate and deliver consistent results. Unlike the Leigh FMT, the Domino only makes mortises. For loose tenons you can use Festool’s Dominos available in huge range of sizes or you can make your own stock. Unlike the FMT, the Domino is portable. You take the tool to the part you’re cutting instead of the other way around.
What can I say? They’re both good. They are different in their approaches, but both are excellent joint-making machines and both are highly recommended. If you’re seriously into woodworking and have plenty of joints to make, commit and standardize on a method to make mortise and tenon joints. If you want to take the plunge into a dedicated tool, put the one you prefer on your Xmas list. Yes, they are pricey, but if you have a lot of joints to make, they’re worth every penny. When I got my FMT, I had an order for 8 bar stools to try it out on. That means 20 tenons and 20 mortises per stool. All joinery was completed in 90 minutes. The tool paid for itself in a single project.
Leigh FMT Pro Mortise and Tenon Jig
Festool Domino DF500 Set
Maybe it’s time to consider diving into digital woodworking and putting a CNC into your home shop.
I’ve used quite a few CNCs over the years, but I continue to be blown away by what the Shapeoko CNCs delivers for low cost. Whether it’s the 33” x 17” XL or the 33” x 33” XXL, you just can’t go wrong with a Shapeoko as a budget CNC. Compact, accurate and a small footprint make them a great choice for first timers. The simple and easy to learn software needed to run the CNC is included, just add a PC or Mac laptop.
Shapeoko XL and XXL
$1499 to $1699
Psst. Got another secret. You know that CAD thing I mentioned earlier? Here’s a bonus: If you can create 3D CAD drawings, you can make prints on a 3D printer. If you’re a CNC owner, you’re likely already making 3D drawings so a 3D printer is like a bonus tool you can use for making useful things around the shop and prototyping projects. I use my printers literally day and night.
I have two suggestions: The excellent Dremel 3D45, reviewed earlier, handles all kinds of materials, is simple to use and just plain works. And, now a ringer amongst budget 3D printers: the Creality Ender 3. It delivers great 3D prints for a price under $200. Better yet, get the Pro version with a nicer bed and a few tweaks for $37 more. Nice!
Dremel DigiLab 3D45 Printers
Creality Ender 3 3D printer
Creality Ender 3 Pro 3D printer
Cool tools are wonderful, but have you ever considered the gift of a great woodworking experience? A great teacher can not only help you improve your woodworking, they can motivate and inspire you. Besides classes in your area, consider a destination woodworking experience. There are a handful of great woodworking schools around the country with great teachers and classes worth traveling for.
In terms of destination schools, I’ve taught at The Marc Adam’s School of Woodworking in Indiana for almost ten years and I’m always blown away by the great experience the school delivers to every student. Marc’s goal is to make his school experience the equivalent of Disneyland for woodworkers. I think he delivers. From the exceptional teachers from all over the world, to the amazing workshops, to the helpful staff and crew, a class at the school is a great gift for any enthusiastic woodworker.
Two and Five Day Classes range from $350 to $900
A great tool or a great experience can make all the difference in woodworking. Think about what could make a difference in your woodworking and put it on the top of your list.
— Tim Celeski
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